Sermon - Sixth Sunday of Easter 5/26/2019
Acts 16:9-15; Ps. 67; Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5; Jn. 5:1-9
As you may have heard, we’re looking to have a congregational meeting on June 23, and we’re trying very hard to make sure we have a quorum for our meeting. According to the constitution of Epiphany Lutheran Church, a quorum is defined as at least 20 baptized and confirmed members. But that’s our rule that the people of this congregation have put in place. In New Testament times, in a city outside of Israel, there was also a rule about the quorum you needed to have a synagogue in that city. The rule was at least 10 Jewish men. That was the rule: only men counted; I’m sorry, ladies. There are probably still churches that have rules like that – we are not one of them, thank God. And women did participate in Jewish synagogues at that time, but the rule was that a critical mass of men was needed to have a synagogue in the first place.
Both the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul tell us that when Paul went to a new city, his practice was to go on the sabbath to the synagogue, where he would tell the Jewish people in that city: I have good news, the Messiah has come. His name is Jesus and we know he is the Messiah because God has raised him from the dead. Paul’s churches always included people who were not Jews, but he always started in the synagogue, where at least people were expecting the Messiah and knew – or thought they knew – what a Messiah was.
Today we read about Paul’s first trip to the city of Philippi in Macedonia, in what is now the northern part of Greece. Much later, Paul will be in prison near the end of his life, and he will write a letter to the church at Philippi, which we call the Letter to the Philippians. Paul had been in what today we would call Turkey. He had tried to go to various places there, and it wasn’t going very well. Then one night he had a vision, or a dream, in which a man from Macedonia said: Come here to Macedonia and help us. So Paul and some other Christians got on a boat and crossed the Aegean Sea – it’s the same route that is being used today by refugees from the war in Syria to get to Europe – and they found themselves in the Roman city of Philippi.
And on the sabbath they went – to the synagogue? That would have been Paul’s usual practice, but the text we read today doesn’t say that. It says that the group left the city and went to a place alongside the river that was known as a place of prayer, and there they found a group of women. And by the rules of the day, a group of women was not a synagogue. And so on his first sabbath in Philippi, Paul tells the good news not in the synagogue, but to a group of women gathered in a place of prayer along the river.
And I have so many questions. For one: Why had these women gathered together outside the city, alongside the river, in a place of prayer on the Sabbath? They could have gone to the synagogue and sat in the women’s section, but instead they went outside the city, along the river. Why? Did they feel somehow excluded from the synagogue, treated as second-class citizens, did they feel closer to God in a place where they could speak directly to God just as themselves? Did that somehow prepare them to hear the good news that the Messiah has come for everyone, that new life is for everybody, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer male or female, no longer slave or free, but that God in Christ is gathering us all together?
Here’s another question: Why didn’t Paul go to the synagogue on the sabbath – or if he did, why didn’t he stay there all day? Paul went to Macedonia because he had a vision of a man from Macedonia inviting them there – if I were Paul, that’s the guy I would have been looking for, and he wouldn’t have been with the women gathered to pray at the river, right? Why did Paul go over and speak to these women? What is it about these women that told Paul that at least some of them would be open to hearing the good news? This wasn’t Paul’s plan in going to Philippi, but something led Paul to go and speak to these women, praying alongside the river. What was it?
The text doesn’t answer any of these questions. It does tell us the name of one of the women there: Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, which is in modern Turkey, where Paul had come from. We are told that she was a wealthy woman, the CEO 1
of her company which traded in purple cloth – purple dye being the most expensive, which is why royalty wears purple, they’re the only ones who can afford it. She is a woman of means, the head of her own household, a mover and shaker, yet on the sabbath day she is not to be found in the synagogue but with the women at the river. And the text says: “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” She was persuaded by Paul’s words, but not because he was so eloquent or his arguments were so compelling – but because God allowed her to hear that the good news of Easter, the good news that Jesus is risen and we shall arise and that God is making all things new, that this was good news for her. And this was something she was already waiting for, as she gathered with the women at the river.
The gospel reading today tells a similar story – a man paralyzed for thirty-eight years, who on the sabbath was not in the synagogue but waiting for God alongside a pool of water. It seems that, in those days, people believed that from time to time an angel would start this pool of water moving, and the first person to get into the water whenever it moved would be healed. To me, at least, that seems like a terrible thing to believe, that God would play with us like that, that God would just throw out a little bit of healing now and then, only enough for one person out of the many who need it, and then watch us race to try to get that healing before somebody else gets it, like some kind of cosmic Hunger Games. No, I believe God’s mercy is abundant and healing is for everyone, even if not always in the form we expect. And God certainly does not put us in competition with one another to get grace. But this man, who had lost the race every time for thirty-eight years, was still there alongside the waters looking for healing, and on the sabbath Jesus came and brought healing for him.
Lydia and the paralyzed man were both, in their own way, ready for the gospel, ready for new life, ready for God to do something new in their lives. They did not know where to find it, so they gathered on the sabbath day – not in the synagogue, but alongside flowing water. They gathered with others who didn’t fit in at the synagogue – Lydia with the other women, the paralyzed man with others who were blind, lame, and paralyzed. And they gather alongside water that moves – or, in the case of the paralyzed man, that they hope will move. Water that comes from who knows where, and goes who knows where.
It’s not a coincidence that in the book of Revelation, in the great vision of the new Jerusalem, the world finally remade by God to be what God always intended it to be, is a city that has a great river running through it, “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” In this city there is no temple, because God is directly and fully present to everybody, and we will simply gather at the river and know that we are in the presence of God.
Lydia and the paralyzed man were each, in their own way, already looking for the New Jerusalem, already hoping and praying for the place of healing and fullness of life. When Jesus came to the portico at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and brought good news to the paralyzed man, when the Spirit of Jesus led Paul to the river outside Philippi in Macedonia, both Lydia and the paralyzed man heard the good news for them – that God loved and cared for them, that God was bringing healing and peace for them, that the New Jerusalem is coming and has room for them. And God then gave them a way to participate in God’s own life here and now: stand up, take up your mat, and walk. For Lydia, she was moved to open her home to Paul and give Paul a place from which to spread the good news in Philippi.
As we come together this morning, as people also longing for the New Jerusalem, longing for a place with healing and safety, a place where everyone – even people like us – are at home, a place where every tear is wiped away and death shall be no more, may we also hear the good news that Jesus is risen, that we also will rise, that the New Jerusalem is coming for us. For God is gathering all humanity to assemble at the river that flows from the throne of God, and Jesus comes to all of our gatherings to show us that this new life is being given now, for you, for me.